ST. LOUIS – Hours before he tied a PGA Championship record with a second-round 63, Brooks Koepka was clearly still miffed at what had transpired the previous day. Swaggering around his rental house on Friday morning, Koepka told his team: “I bet they’re going to interview me this afternoon after I go out and shoot a low number.”
Not a single reporter had wanted to talk with Koepka after his opening 69 at Bellerive, and he’s sadly growing accustomed to the lack of interest.
Never mind that he’s one of the game’s most complete players.
Never mind that he’s No. 4 in the world rankings.
Never mind that, at age 28, he’s the reigning, back-to-back U.S. Open champion.
“The attitude that he has in majors is that he wants to win as many of these as possible to show a lot of people how good he is,” said Koepka’s swing coach, Claude Harmon III. “But he’s the most under-the-radar major champion who is No. 4 in the world that’s ever been around.”
In this major-obsessed sport, it’s worth remembering that Koepka has more major titles than Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas and Jason Day. More than Hideki Matsuyama and Jon Rahm and Rickie Fowler, too. He has only one fewer than Jordan Spieth – and that could change as early as Sunday, with Koepka now sitting just two shots behind Gary Woodland halfway through this PGA at Bellerive.
And so it’s worth exploring whether the disrespect is real or imagined. After all, athletes in every sport search long and hard for a slight, just so they can throw a chip the size of Missouri onto their chiseled shoulders in hopes that it’ll give them an edge on game day. That’s usually not as effective in a non-contact sport, but Koepka has found himself beating back the haters since college.
“I can think of plenty of people along the way telling me I’ll be nothing, working at McDonald’s,” he said. “The whole time, you’re just trying to prove them wrong. You’re always trying to prove somebody wrong. Sometimes your haters are your biggest motivators.”
But how can there still be haters now?
Some felt that Koepka didn’t receive the proper recognition for his U.S. Open title at Erin Hills, where the wind didn’t blow and the players went low and Johnny Miller dismissed it as the Greater Milwaukee Open. If Koepka needed validation, he found it two months ago at Shinnecock, on one of America’s classic courses, on an entirely different test. He outdueled Johnson, the world No. 1, head to head, and became the first player in nearly 30 years to win consecutive U.S. Opens.
Koepka is a proven big-game hunter, the rare player with more major titles (two) than regular PGA Tour victories (one). His U.S. Open repeat extended a Grand Slam résumé that is consistent and well-rounded, with a top-15 finish in every major, and 11 total in just 19 career appearances. According to ShotLink, he’s the fifth-most under par (2 under) of any player in the majors since 1997 – and that’s after missing two majors in the past three years because of injury.
“He comes to these things with something to prove,” Harmon said, “because he wants to prove to everybody that he’s a great player, because he’s overlooked.
“The rest of the players and the caddies, they just say, ‘We don’t get it. This guy is a f------ baller. He shoots zero every time he tees it up.’ He focuses so much on the majors because he knows his career will be defined by that. It was very important for him to win before guys like Jon Rahm and Rickie and Justin Thomas, who get a lot more fanfare.”
Of course, there’s no true metric to gauge whether a player is overlooked or underrated, underappreciated or under the radar. But there are anecdotes, and Harmon has several while working 12 weeks a year as a Sky Sports analyst.
At last year’s U.S. Open, Koepka shot 68 in the first round and again didn’t receive a media request. An hour later, as they were leaving the course, Harmon received a call saying that a TV reporter wanted to interview Koepka. “We waited there for 10 minutes!” Harmon said. “You guys weren’t interested!” Three days later, Koepka won.
Before this year’s PGA, he was summoned to the media tent for a pre-tournament news conference. The interview room here holds about a hundred people. Tiger Woods’ press gathering was standing room only; Koepka’s attracted nine PGA officials and 13 reporters.
Late Thursday afternoon, Koepka stood around his bag, waiting for a PGA media official to tap him on the shoulder and direct him to the interview area. But the request never came. Surprised, he headed to the range, hit a few balls and left.
After the first round of the U.S. Open, the defending champion didn’t make the notables page on the leaderboard. (“To not be looked at as the favorite but still defending was quite an interesting feeling, I guess you could say.”) After the first round here at PGA, there were a few TV segments on the club pros’ play, but no highlights of Koepka’s round.
“We watch all this stuff and we marvel at it,” Harmon said. “He’ll keep winning and you guys will keep ignoring him. You guys are so focused on other people.”
So why no love for the two-time major champ?
Why the disconnect between his success and the unwavering belief that he’s gone underappreciated?
It’s curious, because Koepka would appear to have the total package. He’s 28. He’s handsome. His muscles have muscles. His girlfriend is a model and actress. He oozes jock swagger. He’s hungry.
Media apathy likely plays a significant role. Spieth and Rory Mcllroy are media darlings – eloquent speakers and gifted storytellers who so often provide compelling answers. Koepka possesses a high golf IQ, but he’s also wholly uninterested in round-by-round minutia. So by comparison, Koepka can be viewed as brusque and uncharismatic, with a demeanor that suggests a root canal without Novocain would be more enjoyable.
“His goal is to get to No. 1 in the world, but you’d never know that because he doesn’t say that, and because no one ever asks him: ‘Brooks, what are your goals long-term? What do you want to achieve?’ That’s the funny thing. I’ll always ask, ‘How was your press conference?’ And he’ll say, ‘I got a lot of questions about DJ, and that was about it.’
“If you guys would interview him and ask him real questions and probe him the way you probe the others, it’d be a different story. He’s a very interesting person. If you ask him golf-nerd questions, he’s not going to sit there and be a golf nerd, because he’s not that person. He’s never been that person. That’s not how he operates.”
There’ll be plenty of opportunities to peel back the layers of Koepka’s story, of course, because he’s not going anywhere.
Under Harmon’s watchful eye, he bashes 330-yard drives with a controlled fade. His short game is vastly improved thanks to Pete Cowen. He finished last season ranked 12th in putting.
“The way the game is played right now, he’s going to continue to have opportunities unless they change the rules of the sport,” Harmon said. “He’s just starting to scratch the surface of his ceiling. He can just do things others can’t.”
The only thing he can’t do, it seems, is get the proper credit for what he’s accomplished.
That might finally change this weekend.
A third major title, and Brooks Koepka would be awfully hard to ignore.